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Software You Hope You'll Never Need: An Overview of Mac OS X Backup Applications for Servers, Networks, and Workstations

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Like insurance, there are many backup products to choose from. Ryan Faas cuts to the chase to tell you the best software options for your Mac servers and Mac and cross-platform networks.
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There are three major types of backup software out there: full-feature enterprise solutions, consumer applications, and tools that can be used to back up data even though it isn’t their primary function. Because we are talking about server backups in this article, I suggest investing in an enterprise-level solution because they are really designed for server backups (in addition to potentially backing up workstations). That said, I know some Mac OS X server administrators who use consumer-level applications and/or other tools to manage backup scenarios that work well for their needs (particularly when they have a single server in a small business or organization), so I’ll include some information about those options as part of this overview.

Enterprise Solutions

In my mind, what defines a backup utility as an enterprise solution is that it is capable of backing up data to tape (in addition to fixed media, such as a hard drive or network storage devices) and that it is capable of backing up data that is stored on a remote workstation. The capability to use tape as a backup medium is often critical in middle-sized and large networks because of the amount of data that needs to be backed up. This is particularly true if you maintain successive generations of backups. Tape also makes off-site storage much easier. Likewise, the capability to maintain a client/server backup solution gives you the ability to ensure that data stored on individual workstations is centrally backed up. Client/server backup solutions also enable you to maintain a single backup server, with other servers in the network acting as clients of that server.

There are four major tools of this sort available for Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server (described in the following sections). Each includes a server component and a backup agent that can be installed on other computers within your network. Each has its own unique interface as well as unique pros and cons.

Retrospect

Retrospect is the oldest Mac backup application around and it is the only one that pre-dates Mac OS X. It includes backup agents for Mac OS X (and Mac OS 9 for those organizations that still have pre-OS X workstations) and Windows. This makes it useful in a basic Mac/Windows environment.

Retrospect has a tendency to be one of those applications that you either love or hate because of its interface, which is unique among backup applications. The interface, although functional and attractive, is not particularly intuitive. Even running simple backup jobs can be a bit tricky until you get used to the interface—to say nothing of configuring backups from remote clients and jobs that use complex data selections and schedules. In fact, many failures that people experience with Retrospect are not technical problems; they are problems in terms of understanding the interface. That said, after you do get the hang of the interface, Retrospect is fairly easy to use and you can set up complex operations pretty quickly.

Bru

Bru is a backup solution that has grown a lot since it was first ported to Mac OS X. It has the most intuitive interface of any enterprise-level Mac backup utility. You can easily install Bru on a server and configure it in minutes without even needing to look at a manual. This ease of use makes Bru stand out significantly from any other option. Bru includes Mac and Linux agents for client backup and can be accessed via a command line as well as through its GUI.

NetVault

Like Bru, NetVault began life as a Unix tool. It originally required Apple’s X11 interface to be running, but now has a genuine Aqua interface. The new interface was designed to mimic the look of Server Admin and the Mac OS X System Preferences utility. The interface is far from being as intuitive as the Bru interface, although it is somewhat more traditional than the Retrospect interface. NetVault supports most major platforms with backup agents for Mac OS X, Windows, Unix, Linux, Solaris, and NetWare.

NetVault includes some unique features worth mentioning. You can actually use any client machine to store the backup media as opposed to needing the media to be attached to the server itself. It can also automatically create multiple copies of a single backup. Both of them can make creating off-site backups much easier (provided that you have a fast enough connection between the sites). It also has a feature that allows you to consolidate multiple incremental backups into a single full backup.

Time Navigator

Time Navigator is an application that supports tape backup and offers backup agents for almost every major platform, including Mac OS X, Windows, Unix, Linux, and NetWare. It is an X11 application, and both the server and agent components require X11 to run. Time Navigator is definitely a choice for those most comfortable with Unix and for those with a truly diverse network. The installation process is also more cumbersome and complex in that it requires you to modify various configuration files manually. Although it is a solid option after you get it configured properly and it offers wider interoperability with other platforms, Time Navigator does not seem as mature a solution for Mac administrators to me as the other options, and it can often be difficult to get it running properly and reliably.

Suggestions

When choosing an enterprise-level backup tool, there are a number of factors to consider. Chief among them is the support for the platforms that you will be supporting, your budget, and your choice of backup media (which may not be supported by all four applications—such information can be found on their respective Web sites). Also, some thoughts on interface can be subjective. What is nice is that all four offer downloadable trial packages that you can use in evaluating them.

For Mac-only networks, Bru and Retrospect offer an ease of installation and use that to make them very good options. Bru, in particular, is a great choice simply because of its incredible ease of use and the response of its support staff. Retrospect is the only option if you want to be able to back up Mac OS 9 clients and it is a good option for most small and medium networks in general (just be sure to keep the manual handy). It is also a good option if you have a somewhat basic Mac/Windows network.

NetVault is a nice choice if you have a multiplatform network and it offers greater scalability than Retrospect. Its consolidation feature and copy features are also very attractive. However, NetVault does not seem as polished an application as Bru and Retrospect (perhaps because it is a much newer player to the Mac field). If you are faced with a massive restore of mission-critical data, having a polished interface that is easy to navigate can make your life a lot easier.

Time Navigator is a robust solution for large, multiplatform networks. However, it still needs time to mature as a Mac OS X solution. If you are very comfortable working with Unix and X11 tools or if your organization already has an investment in Atempo’s product line, Time Navigator is an option to consider. Otherwise, I suggest sticking with one of the other options for now.

That said, my personal ranking of the four options is first Bru, then Retrospect, then NetVault, and then Time Navigator. However, I should qualify that by saying that I’ve been using Retrospect for years and have long since gotten used to its quirky interface. I should also say that Retrospect and NetVault are right on top of each other in preference and that I know a number of administrators who would rank those two the opposite way.

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